When Antonioni Blew Up the Movies

  • Share
  • Read Later

Vanessa Redgrave in Blowup, 1966.

Two supreme American novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 44, and Nathanael West, 37, died within a day of each other in December 1940. Just a few hours after Edith Piaf died on October 11, 1963, her friend Jean Cocteau passed away as well; some said that France's supreme aesthete did it as the grandest possible gesture of solidarity.

And last Monday, Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian film director who diagnosed and dramatized postwar alienation, died Monday, the same day as the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. In less than 24 hours, the emperors of angst were gone. Bergman, 89, and Antonioni, 94, were two of the three surviving auteurs who defined serious European movies in the 60s — when serious movies pretty much were European. Of the decade's transcendent film figures, only that perpetual iconoclast Jean-luc Godard, 76, is left standing. If I were he, I'd insist on round-the-clock medical attention.

Antonioni — a slender, handsome fellow who in his prime, as Woody Allen will attest, was a killer ping-pong player — didn't enjoy the brand recognition that Bergman did. But in several ways his influence was even greater. His L'Avventura (1960), which sets up a mystery it never resolves, quickly became a rallying cry and furious debating point for serious film lovers. La Notte (1961), Eclipse (1962) and Red Desert (1964) cemented Antonioni's reputation as an anatomizer of malaise and a supreme picture-maker. Blowup (1966), his first full-length English-language film, was a sensation for its frank view of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll in swinging London. It grossed $20 million (about $120 million today) on a $1.8 million budget and helped liberate Hollywood from its puritanical prurience.

But Antonioni, if his name rings any bells today, is known for making long, slow films about the misery of Europe's leisure class. While his compatriot Federico Fellini sketched modern anomie and aimlessness with a cartoonist's quick, broad slashes, Antonioni brought Atomic Age anomie to a kind of life with delicate bush strokes; he was the fastidious, mandarin un-Fellini. For a time, he was unlike anyone, until many directors saw that trail he had blazed and started treading it.

His glum, frozen characters were even father removed from Hollywood cinema. The traditional movie hero was an action figure; the Antonioni antihero is inactive, passive, empty. Rich and pretty, he shows how meaningless it is to be a man of means. He in incapacitated by wealth, status and the availability of sex with good-looking people of the opposite sex. The advantages that the world's poor could only dream of have paralyzed him.

Bergman's men (and especially his women) might rage against the prevailing gloom; Antonioni's people (and especially his men) sink into it. Their problems are hard to define, and beyond salvation by God, psychoanalysis or madness. They don't cry; they barely have enough energy to shrug. Are they alive at all, or the reduction of humanity to zombies? Long before George Romero, and in chic Rome instead of a Pittsburgh cemetery, Antonioni filmed his own Night of the Living Dead.

These are the existential blahs that critic Andrew Sarris called "Antoniennui." For audiences unable to get on the director's wavelength or into his measured rhythm, seeing his characters suffer in slow motion was like watching paint dry. Movies were supposed to move, not slouch against a wall, and the pace of Antonioni's movies was a special test for the antsy.

But for other viewers, Antonioni — who had come to directing after being a film critic, an assistant director, a screenwriter (he scripted Federico Fellini's solo feature directorial debut, The White Sheik) and the maker of documentary shorts — was the first true modernist in commercial cinema. His pristine imagery and elegant compositions taught viewers to watch a movie, not just see it. Calling L'Avventura "easily, the film of the year," critic Pauline Kael hailed it for demonstrating "that the possibilities for serious, cultivated, personal film expression in the film medium were not yet exhausted." (The next year, she castigated La Notte, which traced the disintegration of a marriage during a 12-hour soiree, as a "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe party.")

Pro or con, a filmgoer had to be diverted by the beautiful people in an Antonioni cast: stunners like Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon and especially Monica Vitti, the director's mistress and muse for five crucial films. These stars helped Antonioni make anxiety glamorous, passivity photogenic, entropy entertaining. You could say he made "boring" interesting.


But interesting why? Why watch this, especially for the 2hr.23mins. L'Avventura takes to unravel? The movie is the story of... well, that was the problem. The story, so to speak, focused on the trip a few wealthy layabouts take to a rocky island near Sicily. One of the men, Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti), has come with his mistress Anna (Lea Massari) and Anna's friend Claudia (Vitti). Anna has been quarreling with her beau, and 25 mins. into the film, she vanishes. Sandro and Claudia look and look and look and...don't find her. The two searchers get sidetracked into their own affair, but Anna never shows up, nor is her disappearance explained. Huh?

That was the feeling of a lot of people during the film's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. They greeted it with jeers, declaring it deficient as entertainment or art. That cued a righteous backlash of assembled directors (including Italy's Roberto Rossellini) and critics (including Richard Roud of Britain's National Film Theatre), who signed a petition "to express their admiration for the maker of this film." The Cannes Jury, headed by novelist Georges Simenon, sided with the petitioners, giving the film second prize "for a new movie language and the beauty of its images." Informed world opinion followed soon enough. In a 1962 poll by Sight & Sound magazine, international critics rated L'Avventura the second greatest film of all time, behind Citizen Kane.

Seen today, 47 years later, L'Avventura seems easy to read, a treat to watch and a pretty profound parable on the limits of fidelity and friendship. The movie's title, which translates as The Adventure, was not a joke; it was an apt appraisal of the intellectual thrills the film would provide for its viewers. Adventure was also the word for the challenges in form and content that Antonioni and other '60s pioneers would bring to '60s cinema. And yet that first, boorish benighted Cannes audience did have a couple of very conventional reasons to be outraged.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3